In the wake of Covid-19 making many of us spend lots of time at home and by ourselves, psychologists have begun publishing research on what being by yourself does to your mind, your body and your behaviour: “It turns out there’s a link between the size of a primate’s brain, and size of the communities it is able to form: the bigger the brain, the greater the extent of its social world. With our generously proportioned organs, humans form the largest groups of any primate, containing an average of 150 individuals. This is “Dunbar’s number” and it turns out that it crops up rather a lot, from the optimal upper limit for a church congregation to the average size of social networks on Twitter.”
The fact that 150 people is the number of people we can socialise with has led psychologists to figure out why this is: “To successfully navigate an interaction with another human being, you need to keep in mind a surprisingly large amount of information – in addition to basic details like where they live and work, it’s helpful to recall the more nuanced features of their existence, such as their friends, rivalries, past indiscretions, social standing, and what motivates them. Many faux pas are down to slip-ups with these basic assumptions, like asking a recently-fired friend about their job, or complaining about children to a soon-to-be-parent.
In the end, the number of relationships we can maintain is limited by the amount of processing power we have available – and over millions of years, species with more social contacts tend to evolve larger their brains. It turns out this link works the other way around, too. In the short term, a lack of socialising can make them shrink.”
Scientists seem to have found solid evidence of the impact of the lack of socialising on our brains: “Last year, German scientists discovered that the brains of nine polar explorers, who lived in Antarctica for 14 months at a research station, were smaller by the end of the trip. By looking at MRI scans taken before and afterwards, they found that on average, the “dentate gyrus” – a C-shaped region which is mostly involved in the formation of new memories – was diminished by about 7% over the course of the expedition.
Along with the reductions in brain volume, the explorers also performed worse on two tests of intelligence – one for spatial processing, which is the ability to tell where objects are in space, and one for selective attention, which is broadly how well you can focus on a particular object for a period of time.”
As research on this subject progresses, scientists are increasingly drawing a distinction between solitude versus loneliness: ““Solitude” involves being alone without being lonely – it’s a contented state…“Loneliness” is a very different beast, in which a person feels isolated and craves more social contact.”
Lonely people – it seems – face a variety of complex challenges: “…people who feel isolated tend to have a heightened awareness of social threats – such as saying the wrong thing. They can easily fall into the trap of “confirmation bias”, in which they actively interpret the actions or words of others in a way that supports their negative outlook of their own status or social ability. By having low expectations of others and viewing themselves unfairly, they effectively invite people to treat them badly.
Lonely people must also run the gauntlet of an impaired ability to regulate their own thoughts, feelings and behaviour. This skill is critical to the ability to comply with social norms, and involves constantly analysing and modifying your behaviour in relation to other people’s expectations. Alarmingly, this process is usually automatic – and your capacity for self-regulation can be affected without you even noticing.
In this way, isolation can become a self-fulfilling prophecy known as “the loneliness loop”.”
This in turn has led to psychologists prescribing that we make an effort to interact with people even if we might prefer solitude: “For decades, solitude by choice was seen as more benign. Its benefits have been extolled for far longer by philosophers, religious leaders, indigenous peoples and artists. But there’s mounting evidence that withdrawing from society might have some unintended consequences, even if it’s done on purpose.
Teenagers with a preference for spending time alone tend to be less socially competent, and research has shown that, while some people might think that they prefer solitude, in reality, they enjoy connecting with others, even total strangers. These negative expectations are problematic, because they keep people from learning what actually happens when you interact with people.
So it seems that we do need social practice – but not for the reasons you might think. Regularly interacting with others teaches us to feel valued and helps us to accurately interpret the intentions of others, which helps us to have more positive social experiences.”

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